The Weight of a Supposition

I have written little of metaphysical aspects of truth, perhaps due to its complexity especially in terms of answering the question: Is there a God? Having read some Kierkegaard lately, I have reflected on the issue of the lack of concrete evidence in terms of the proposed and supposed omnipotent being and it would seem that if such a being did exist, It should have no qualms of manifesting Itself for the sake of its creatures. The argument goes that because It does not show Itself, It cannot exist or It does not care  and therefore, we have no obligation nor prerogative to practice faith. I will not endeavour to prove Its existence, but rather to reflect on scenarios in the event that such a being were supposed to exist.

It occurs to me that if such a being chose to reveal Itself in all Its power to the limited human mind but in such a way as to be comprehended, we would have no choice but to fulfill our obligations to It, knowing it is our alpha and omega, as it were, in terms of existence. It would seem the motive for such an unquestionable revelation of authority would be to demand servitude or manipulation in some form, whether cruel or neutral we cannot say. In any case, such a Being would have a very immanent, but dominant role among its creatures, forcing  them to a robotic nature in their actions due to the constant revelation of the cosmological being.

Now I turn to my Kierkegaard. Suppose then this Being chose to not reveal itself for the motive of not exhausting the limited human mind or out of a desire to be honoured and respected by the free choice of its creatures, perhaps even loved (both cases assume the Being’s concern with Its creatures’ welfare). In such a case, the Being hazards doubt, rejection, and dishonour by its creatures, but at the same time, true honour and love cannot be forced. Why such a Being should want or need to be loved or hazard such doubt for the free choice of Its creatures is beyond reason essentially, but to illustrate this mystery, Kierkegaard often compared faith to one who was violently in love. For example, there are cases where a girl may ask her boyfriend why he loves her, but he honestly cannot tell her why. Though he gives her no concrete reason for his love, should she doubt it exists? It would appear that the actions or motives of such a higher being could not be rationally justifiable nor comprehensible by the human mind and here is where our frustration lies for those of us who love to explain phenomena through the senses and scientific observation.

Therefore, if we posit that a higher being does exist in this reality, we must assume that the second scenario is a possibility, whereas the first is obviously not the case.

The Critique of Liberal Individualism

I was reading the other day about the feminist response to liberal individualism in ethics, critiquing  such related theories as Kantian deontology and utilitarianism. These moral theories begin with the premise that humans are independent, individual, rational, and self-sufficient. Ethics of care theorists and feminists criticize this enlightenment theme as contrary to the reality, that humans are also interdependent, relational, and emotional from the time they are born to the day they die. Emotion in the ethics of care does not necessarily have to be irrational as one may think of the roguish passions of hedonism, but reflective as in the cultivated emotions of empathy and responsiveness to needs. I’m not sure I buy into the ethics of care, but the critique has merely made me rethink the original enlightenment premise, perhaps in a more broader sense than its application to ethics.

My first prerogative is to examine the historical context. Liberal individualism was responding to a time period when political involvement was being either radically (French/American revolution) or gradually (British parliament) transitioned from the rule of a few (the nobility and monarchy) to the rule of the masses. Yes, women and slaves were excluded in most cases but for the sake of argument, a considerably larger amount of people were participating in public policy. Kant was merely looking for a fundamental moral principle to keep the masses morally accountable for the atrocities committed in the French Revolution, when they had done away with religion, which had previously been the primary source of moral guidance. In other words, how do we uphold the rights of each and every man, not just assuming he (or she) is another face in the crowd or a minority when it comes to collective decisions (aka the tyranny of the masses)? It would seem that the liberals were facing a graver threat to humanity itself and women would have been part of that underprivileged, minority group, which liberals wanted to protect from the masses through freedom of expression.  Kant wanted to protect each human on a universal scale and not leave inalienable rights to be guaranteed by political entities such as states, a point that Hannah Arendt would examine in the World War II scenario in terms of stateless people (i.e. the Jews who were not recognized as German citizens with rights under Hitler). (Arendt is a genius, by the way).

I do realize the feminist critique is responding to the paternalistic attitudes in utilitarianism and the categorical imperative of Kant, the seeming detachment of moral theory from the reality of human interdependency. Also, Kant believed women were irrational, which would enrage many of my sex. But if the early liberals did not defend the rights of the individual nor encourage him (or her) to think for oneself, the feminists would not be self-aware nor capable of their emancipation without such freedom and dignity accorded to their persons as ends, not means. In fact, John Stuart Mill was a liberal who wrote a stirring piece on “The Subjugation of Women”, detailing the injustice done to women in the private sphere. I concede that reflective emotional response should be part of ethical theory, but we cannot discount the rational deliberation of the private individual, as it often is reflected into the public sphere. We must realize there must be a fundamental objectivity in core apriori moral principles upon which we can shape by experience our moral attitudes.

Human Nature

The ongoing debate. The defining underlying traits of the species of homo sapiens. Humanism has argued furtively that Man, made in the image of God and the height of perfection among all creatures, is fundamentally good in all his rational and philosophical glory. Enlightenment and postmodernism stoutly believe in the inherent evilness of Man, who knows only suffering, pain, and misery and he is an animal, no more the image of an omnipotent immanent God than proof of such a God’s existence. The problem of evil has always burdened the minds of our wisdom lovers, making agnostics, atheists, and deists out of all those who come to the only seemingly practical solution.

As for myself, I have always believed humans to be fundamentally flawed. We are capable of the most beneficent goods, the most selfless acts, and the most noble aspirations. Ultimately, we recognize that the good is always better than the absence or corruption of good. Yet we have this tendency to do evil, to succumb to temptations, greed, malice, or overall disregard for others of our kind. Evil yields no long term reward in this world and does not often prevail in any significant way, so why do we still commit it? It would seem that evil is the product of human action, not of any God.

To start with the assumption that humans were once perfect can be explained either by God, by ethics through free will and moral responsibility, or even by a scientific perspective that we were once amoral (once animals, but now evolved with a conscience). In all cases, it would seem that humanity was either not given a chance to choose between good or evil (amoral stage) or was faced by a first choice where committing harm appeared more salient than the contrary. Make such choices implies that we know full well that we are committing a wrong, otherwise ethical/moral responsibility would play no role. It is indeed a mystery why evil would appear more salient to the first human being, but I have only aimed in my reflections here to demonstrate that human nature is indeed fallen, but not totally incapable of decency.

Ignorance is Bliss?

I often chuckle when I hear this old adage. The argument goes that people are happier in their own little worlds, happier with the illusions and lead their lives without any sort of change because they wouldn’t know how to change it in the first place. For example, the happy wife or husband who is ignorant of their spouse’s affair, the orphan who believes his foster parents are really his biological parents, or the consumer who isn’t aware of how much fat is in a fast food meal. Apparently, knowledge brings with it the notion of an unwanted burden, the discomfort of having to do something to change one’s way of life based on one or more components of one’s illusory life that have suddenly been shattered or have disappeared in smoke. In short, one is doomed to the reality.

We hear this sort of talk echoed in the writings of Marx (religion as the opiate of the masses), Sartre (Nietzsche, God is dead, the burden of existence), and Hume (the skeptic: How can we know anything for sure?). And certainly, they are compelling in their own right.

Here I break with tradition, or rather I return to classical tradition, in order to make the claim that these modern authors, in supporting such claims, de-humanize the human spirit, that is they deprive our nature of its vitality and meaning as rational beings. Knowledge is liberation, it is the creative breath in our being. I raise my greatest defence by citing Plato’s cave – we must envy that prisoner who escapes the shadows and comes into the light. Yes, he is prey to the elements, the animals, and the unknown, fearful and alone, but he is there nonetheless, in the full light of the sun. He is a creative self, introducing himself as a new force in the real world, as a painter of his tabula raza. The spouse who discovers the affair is miserable, yes, but only for a time, for then he or she is no longer bound to them. The child who discovers his real parents are dead is sad, yes, but he learns to appreciate the ones he has and who have loved him in their place. The philosopher who knows that he or she knows nothing can despair, yes, but then his or her path is opens up in the search for truth. There is no need to be blind when our eyes only need to be accustomed to the light of that bright sun.



Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Violence in all its forms is despicable, but the most depraved deprivation of human dignity is sexual violence and mutilation of minors and women. They are the most vulnerable victims in armed conflicts, not just because they are defenseless, but because their aggressors have seen fit to use such “tactics” as weaponry to enhance their own interests. What a horrendous way to dehumanize your enemy, to make them less than moral and rational beings of value! My heart goes out to them.

The Enlightened Voter

Project Apathy

It’s groups like these that we desperately need.

I was watching a clip of the O’Reilly Show the other day, where he was interviewing Jon Stewart from the Daily Show. Ol’ Bill was calling all the viewers of Stewart’s show quote “stoned slackers who love Obama”. I suppose this refers to Stewart’s attraction of a college student-aged audience, which would include me. I’m not entirely sure that I enjoy being called a “stoned slacker” after studying IR for three years and working through school, much less any other college or university student or anyone else for that matter who loves to watch Stewart. We’re the next generation of voters (hell, we CAN vote) and I think the content of the show itself requires a relatively sober mind to be able to keep up with the nuances in American politics.

Political comedy is the aqua vitae of democracy. Not only does it educate and keep people aware of current affairs, but it actually educates the voter. It lets him or her think critically about his or her political participation and the weight of his or her voice on the grand scale of the national community, as well as the implications of what he or she is voting for. The voter turnout drops every election because we just don’t care anymore. We let senior citizens decide our fate. I’ll admit the charism of Obama had brought more people to the polls, but do we honestly need charismatic leaders to inspire our people to love their electoral freedoms? So O’Reilly, let Stewart poke a few jokes and stir the crowds! I’m tired of hearing from old, white men.

Moral Responsibility

Hero of War – Rise Against

Fischer assumes that our deliberative capacity is what keeps us morally responsible, whether one is a causal determinist or free will theorist (Fischer 336). He goes on to say that we are held morally responsibly because we have a “moral ledger” of good and bad, or that we must explain and justify our behaviour to another, or we become the targets of reactive attitudes (333-4). Using these principles, it is interesting to look at the soldier’s reasons for joining the army. We can see the soldier’s moral ledger and what he considers “good” when he is offered and accepts a career, an opportunity to travel, and a chance to prove his patriotism by defence of his country. All of these are either instrumental or intrinsic “goods” for him. For example, his behaviour may be explained or justified by the positive reactive attitudes of (American) society towards a soldier who fights for his or her country as a “hero of war” since patriotism is considered an intrinsic good.

While the soldier does mention the fame and honour he will receive at home, he never explicitly mentions his reasons for signing up in the first verse. Fischer would argue that all the above “reasons” were more than enough to causally determine the drafting of the soldier. That is, there was no other choice but the army for him based on the chain of previous events or influences. In fact, he might even go so far as to say that the soldier was causally determined to carry a gun, and therefore, to use it. In response, I find it very hard to believe that the life of a soldier is the only career that includes patriotism, fame, and travel. Can our soldier not also choose or be causally determined to become a politician, a diplomat, or even part of a UN peacekeeping mission if he is “destined to shoot”? There was no coercive pressure in the draft offer either to force the soldier’s answer one way or another. We must assume that the agent has taken up the greater moral responsibility of saving or taking lives upon himself freely, because to our knowledge, he has no previous experience of the army and he has decided that this career’s “good” is greater than that of the other careers mentioned. As well, how the gun is used is crucial to our understanding of the “destined to shoot” idea, which seems to imply that the gun would always be used to take lives. This may not always be the case, as even police officers and peacekeepers carry arms. However, is the soldier causally determined to use the gun one way and not another? This brings us to the other moral dilemmas of the song.

Fischer’s use of the Frankfurt example to demonstrate that John Smith would have voted Democrat anyway despite deliberation (336) runs parallel to the situation of the soldier joining his comrades in torture or shooting the woman with the white flag. The soldier is bound by military duty, patriotism, and associative duties to his fellow soldiers to enforce, defend, or guard his country’s and countrymen’s interests and security. Using the idea of satisficing, it could be argued that the soldier could not act optimally because the haze would prevent him from seeing the white flag and the woman’s continual advance might mean that she is  armed and dangerous for all the soldier may know (ex: a suicide bomber). Given the circumstances, Fischer would argue that the soldier was causally determined to shoot in that particular situation, whether under orders or out of self-defence. However, when the soldier protests the abuse of the prisoner or begs the woman to stop her advance, it would seem the soldier’s deliberative action at T1 starkly contrasts his action at T2, probably due to conflicting influences (values) instilled in him at T0. If the soldier is causally determined according to Fischer, which of these two conflicting pasts (T0 army and T0 pre-army) has influenced our soldier? Why is he less likely to be determined by the values of his pre-army past which allowed him to speak up, since a longer causal chain exists there? Even if we supposed multiple causal chains in his determined nature, the soldier still appears to have a choice when it comes to the influence of one or more of the causal chains because there are such conflicts. Therefore, he must be held morally accountable for his actions.

Fischer’s search for moral responsibility in causal determinism is problematic when we are presented with a story like “Hero of War”. While it is true that many trained in the army are brainwashed to a certain degree, McIlrath succeeds in bringing out the humanity at the heart of a soldier: the individual who is capable of free moral choice in extraordinary circumstances.

Works Cited

Fischer, John Martin. “Free Will and Moral Responsibility.” The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Ed. David Copp. New York : Oxford University Press, 2005. 321-356. Electronic Resource.

Theistic Existentialism

When we think of modern existentialism and the individual who is free to create to his own identity apart from socially accepted norms of human development and thought, we may think of founders like Sartre, Nietzsche, Freud, and even Simone de Beauvoir because they rejected this idea of humanism and the value of humanity based on Biblical dogma.

We tend to forget about Soren Kierkegaard (one of my favourite philosophers) who was the first to propose any existential notion of the individual: Truth is Subjectivity and Doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith that has brought doubt into the world, as well as his “leap of faith” theory.

Where Sartre, Nietzsche, and even Freud have simply discounted or ignored the gap between empirical observations and the notion of “God” as irrational, Soren Kierkegaard has stressed the importance of the individual to find such truths for oneself and taking alternate routes from scientific methodology to discover such facets of the human identity. Kierkegaard’s belief in the superrational (not irrational) is an acceptance of Socrates statement: All I know is that I know nothing. Existentialism does not necessarily imply nihilism (we are born to die) or that we are burdened with the (re)fabrication of our existence, but simply to question our purpose and to examine the essence of the cosmos as both unfathomable and beyond one method of analysis.  Spiritual, emotional, or even mental experience is neither quantifiable nor fourth dimensional, but transcendent and requiring its own “gauges”. The search for certainty is not futile, but  passionate and distinctly human.

The Orwell Problem

How can we remain ignorant when the evidence is so overwhelming?

The Freedom of the Press by George Orwell

This article by the 1984 author himself, which was meant as a preface to Animal Farm, reminds me of Mill’s argument that without criticism and an arena for free discussion, human beings cannot achieve healthy progress or self-development. I truly believe Orwell is a political anarchist and when we read his books, we tend to forget that he was writing in a time when Soviet Russia was fighting alongside the Allies against Hitler and such aid was more than welcome, in spite of the fear of growing communist movements for revolution. It was considered bad taste to critique the governments of your allies, however inhumanely they treated their own people. It is during the World Wars that IR theorists including myself realize the problems with widely accepted concepts like sovereignty and non-interference.

Several questions came to mind as I read this: Should a liberal democratic government have the right to censorship or is it a serious violation of negative liberty? When Orwell (and Milton) speaks of “ancient liberty”, did it ever really exist? Doesn’t Marxist theories of history concerning ideologies of the powerful challenge this idea? Are our present day ideas dictated by the elite and the result of brainwashing the population to love certain political ideals, especially those with economic ties? To what extent was Orwell’s book responsible for the ferocious anti-communist sentiment of American in last few decades? Can we apply Orwell’s concepts to the modern day’s renegade liberalism in a certain hegemonic regime? Are totalitarian methods practiced in advanced democracies today and is this the reason for their stability?